The Down East range of boats were made in Santa Ana, California, and all had traditional clipper bows and sprits. The 45 footers, like Britannia also had ornamental trail-boards either side of the bow—that is, except the boat I bought in 2010. I never could find out why she didn’t have trail-boards like all the others, because they certainly enhance the bow of any boat. The hull showed no signs they had ever been fitted either, perhaps the original buyer just didn’t like them.
I had tried for ages to find a pair of original trail-boards, on the web and sailing forums, but without success, so I decided to try making a pair. From photographs of other Down Easters I estimated they were about seven feet long and a foot wide at the rear, tapering forward to the beak-head under the bowsprit.
The original boards were solid fiberglass resin, screwed to the side of the hull. They were probably cast from port and starboard molds, but making molds would be a very time consuming method for just two trail-boards. I resolved to try and carve them, but first I had to decide what material to carve them from. It had to be a something which would not only be carveable, but would also bend to the shape of the hull and the sharper curve where the hull met the beak-head, called the bow rabbet line, (that's not a typo). The material also needed to be impervious to seawater, because a sailboats bow is constantly sprayed with seawater and occasionally completely inundated.
Wood was an obvious material, and I had routing bits and chisels to carve the intricate scroll-work in a solid plank of timber, but it was definitely beyond my expertise and equipment to bend a plank to the curve needed for the beak-head. A hardwood plank, like teak, of the size I needed would also be very expensive. I considered building up a lamination of thin sheets glued together, but I had no mold to pre-form them on, except the actual boat. Since the boat was in the water, that would have been a very messy job. I also felt that a couple of wooden boards either side of the bow would rapidly become just another high maintenance area. I asked numerous “pro service desk” people in do-it-yourself stores if they had any suggestions. The replies varied from, “Look down our boating equipment aisle,” to “Try West Marine down the road.” Searching the web was not much help either, because all the trail-boards I found were carved in wood.
I continued to search the aisles of hardware stores and finally found what I was looking for. I found solid plastic Poly Vinyl Chloride, (PVC) boards, called trimboard, made by Royal Mouldings Limited. (www.royalbuildingproducts.com). I guess the reason they were never suggested was because they were for use in “houses”, not boats. They are available in various widths and lengths, all 3/4” inch thick and in white pigmentation. These planks are actually easier to work then wood, because there is no grain. The material is impervious to seawater and will not rot or delaminate like wood, and easy to paint. A major advantage for my project is that PVC can also be bent when heated. The boards are smooth on one side and have a wood grain on the other. I used the smooth side outwards for my trail-boards.
Having discovered a suitable material, (I hoped), I bought some sheets of thin art board and a roll of masking tape to make a template of the shape I needed. Standing in my dinghy I taped the art board to the side of the hull and beak-head, then trimmed it until I had a shape similar to the original trail-boards. When the template was removed and laid flat it was nothing like what I expected the shape to be and it turned out I would need a board 14” inches wide and 89” inches long. I drew the traditional vine-like scroll on the template and carefully cut it out of the card with a craft knife. Of course, this was done on our kitchen table – boaters never change.
I then bought a 9” inch wide plank and one 6” inches wide, both 8’ feet long, to fabricate a single trailboard. They were not exactly cheap at $59.00 for both, so I bought only for one trail-board, in case my experiment didn’t work. I glued and clamped the boards together edge to edge, using regular PVC cement and primer. This is the same adhesive people will be familiar with for gluing PVC pipes for lawn sprinkler systems, etc. I left the glue to set overnight, traced the template shape on the board then rough-cut it with my circular bench saw. I rounded the edges with a belt sander with 80 grit.
At this point I would caution anyone intending to use this material to wear complete cover-alls, including a hat, gloves and facial protection. The dust from PVC is finer than wood shavings and gets absolutely everywhere!
There are two ways to carve a shape or name on a board, whether it be for a house or a boat. The shape can be cut into the board, (incised), usually in a vee profile; or the surrounding background material can be removed, leaving the shape raised up (relief). The original trail-boards were made in the relief format, so I decided on this, even though it is the much more difficult and time consuming method—but I think the finished effect is more striking. For this I used my trusty hand-held router fitted with a 3/4” inch wide flat cutting bit, to remove the larger areas between the scrolls. I set the cutter depth to 1/2” inch, which would leave 1/4” inch of material in the base of the board. I also used a 1/4” inch bit to remove material between the narrower areas.
Before I started to use the router I taped a shop vac’ nozzle near the bit to suck all the cuttings into the vac’. Not only did this minimize the dust going all over me and my garage, but it allowed me to see where I was working. I first began routering out the larger sections between the scroll shapes and also left a raised border all the way round the outer edges.
It took a complete day to route out the background material, leaving the scroll as a raised relief. Then I changed the cutter for a 1/4” inch half round, to form a rounded edge on all the square edged. Next came the hard work, hand sanding all the relief with 120 grit paper to prepare for painting.
With all this done I drilled a row of 3/16” inch holes at 12” inch centers all round the edges to take the stainless self tapping screws I would use to fasten the boards to the hull. I also pre-drilled for a few fasteners in the center of the board to stop it bowing. These were than counter-bored with a 3/8” inch drill, to sink the screw heads enough to be able to infill the holes. Removing more than half the thickness of the board made it much more flexible and lighter.
I marked the board where the rabbet bend was and decided to try and pre-bend the board to make it easier to fit. I had previously practiced on some off-cuts to soften the plastic using a heat gun, so I had a rough idea how much heat was needed to make the board pliable. It was just a matter of keeping the gun moving over the area—wearing heavy gardening gloves I should add—and slowly the PVC softened enough to allow me to bend it. It certainly looked an odd shape.
Eventually the piece was ready to trial-fit to the bow and I again used my dinghy as a work platform. This time my wife Kati joined me to hold the board in place while I fastened it. It was now pliable enough to conform to the gentle shape of the bow, but I had not bent it enough to the sharper rabbet curve. I applied more heat and was able to push it into the curve and the exact shape of the beak-head. I held it with clamps while securing it with screws.
Suddenly I had quite a fancy looking trailboard. PVC is really amazing material; when I removed the boards they stayed in the exact shape of the hull and beak-head.
I was so pleased with the result that I bought two more planks and fabricated the starboard trailboard exactly like the port side. Making a second board went much smoother, but by then my wife and I were experienced trailboard fabricators weren't we??
PAINTING THE BOARDS
The next job was to paint the boards. I wanted the background color to be the same as the topside stripe, called Mauritius Blue, from the Interlux’ Perfection range. These paints are two-pot mixes and very hard finishes. I had used Perfection on the masts and spars years ago, and they are as good now as they were then. However, since I was now painting PVC, not aluminum, I decided to seek advice from the manufacturers themselves. Matthew Anzardo, the Interlux marketing manager for North America was very helpful, and suggested I again use their Perfection and Brightside range of paints.
Matthew first recommended cleaning the PVC surface with Fiberglass Surface Prep (YMA601V), then two coats of Epoxy Primekote undercoat, (404) also a two part paint. Then I could apply the Perfection background and polyurethane scroll color.
All materials were from Jamestown Distributors. (www.Jamestowndistributors.com) Included with every tin was a mixing bowl, wooden stirrer, gloves and a filter. Shipping was also free.
Traditionally trailboard scroll-work is highlighted with gold leaf, but gilding with real gold leaf is a very specialized and expensive business, well outside my skill level. Unfortunately, Interlux don't have a metalized gold paint, so I decided to use Brightside bright yellow, (4152), which contrasts markedly with the dark blue background.
I began by painting three coats of yellow on the scrolls. I then applied the Mauritius Blue background while the boards were flat on the bench. That way, I didn’t need to mask all round the scrolls, because I was able to “float” the blue up to the edges in a neat line using a flat 1/2” inch wide artists brush. When it had all thoroughly dried I brushed on two coats of clear gloss varnish, which further emphasized the gold, and the result is stunning.
Since Britannia is a British registered boat I thought I would add some heraldic symbolism to my handiwork. The red cross at the tip of the beak-heads is the Cross of St. George, patron saint of England, which forms part of the Union Jack. The emblem at the head of the scroll is my sorry attempt at the Prince of Wales feathers, supposedly won by Edward, Black Prince of Wales, at the battle of Crėcy in 1346. My wife thought we should hang the boards in our house, as a sort-of psychedelic artwork, instead of on the boat. It did seem a pity to subject all my hard work to the sea and weather. Perhaps I’ll remove them if we eventually sell the boat.
Before attaching the boards permanently to the bow I gave the underside a liberal coat of 3M 5200 adhesive caulk also from Jamestown Distributors. It took three tubes, which helped glue the boards to the hull. I then trimmed the excess caulk and this long job was finished.
Finally I would say, don't start this job unless you have infinite patience. Making them was tedious in the extreme, first routing the pattern, then painting three coats on the scroll, then two on the background round the scroll. The result though is spectacular and worth the cost and effort to me.